Alice Petrossian

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School administrator keeps toiling away

Alice Petrossian has served Glendale Unified for 30 years
by Alex Dobuzinskis
Armenian Reporter - December 1, 2007

GLENDALE, Calif. -- She has taught school in a rough part of town, spent summers in Armenia getting school supplies for impoverished children and won much too many awards to hang them all up at the office.

But to hear Alice Petrossian speak, one gets the impression that the Glendale Unified assistant superintendent is just getting started with her work. And it is work that seems to define her.

She confesses to getting four hours of sleep a night, laying awake as she jots down ideas for how to better educate children, or better serve her community.

"I have quite a hangup about work ethic," said Petrossian, 60. "I believe that work is what makes the difference, whether it's voluntary or paid."

She calls herself a workaholic, and she jokes that she wants to start a workaholics anonymous chapter in Glendale, where everyone could meet for soda.

But in the meantime, she keeps toiling away.

In her 30 years with the school district, Petrossian's achievements include introducing Armenian as an elective language for high school students and creating a welcome center for immigrant children and their families.

Most recently, she helped create an Armenian language academy a couple years ago at a Glendale elementary school, where Armenian-American students get daily lessons in the language of their ancestors.

She also worked with a group called the Davidian & Mariamian Educational Foundation to bring after-school Armenian language programs to Glendale schools.

In a district where 66 percent of students speak a primary language other than English, with Armenian being the most common language among those students, Petrossian is proud of her work helping immigrant children thrive in their new home.

And she knows what many of those children go through. When she was nine years old, Petrossian's family immigrated to the United States from Iran. Unable to speak the language, she cried and asked her parents why they moved.

But she says she understands why her parents, Jake and Mina Shirvanian, left an unstable Iran in 1956, and she says that from them she inherited a gift for giving.

She has volunteered for more than a dozen community organizations, many of them in the Armenian community. They include the Armenian Red Cross Society, the Armenian Relief Society and Junior Achievement of Armenia.

Every summer for the past eight years, she has traveled to Armenia with her husband to build up impoverished schools in the border regions. The Petrossians do that work through the Armenian Educational Foundation.

Petrossian has also served as the chair of the No Child Left Behind Task Force, and has been able to talk about education with aides to President George W. Bush.

It all fits into a general philosophy Petrossian says she lives by.

"It's a good world if you give," she said. "It can be a pretty depressing world if you expect only to receive."

For all her work, both at the school district and as a volunteer, the Glendale-based Armenian American Chamber of Commerce gave Petrossian an award for educational work at its inaugural Women in Business luncheon in October.

"She stated it perfectly; she said that she runs the biggest business in Glendale and has the most customers, and she was referring to the schools," said Annette Vartanian, executive director of the chamber.

Petrossian's career in education started at age 5, when her teacher left the classroom, only to come back and find a young Alice Petrossian trying to lead her classmates through lessons.

Her formal career in education began in 1970 as an elementary school teacher in Eureka, Calif. Soon, she had moved on to a teaching assignment at a middle school in a rough neighborhood in Hayward, Calif., a suburb of Oakland.

It was there that the teacher got her own education in how to work with immigrant communities. Petrossian said a lot of that involved dialoguing with the Brown Berets, a group that served as the Mexican-American version of the Black Panther Party.

Glendale's immigrant communities have nothing near the militancy of the Brown Berets, but they nevertheless bring a diverse student body to the city's school district.

There are 64 different languages spoken by students in the district. For more than 8,850 students, the primary language is Armenian. More than 4,400 students primarily speak Spanish, and the district has sizable numbers of Korean speakers and Tagalog speakers from the Philippines.

At the welcome center that Petrossian created at district headquarters, administrators and counselors can speak to students and parents in almost any language. The goal is to test students in their native language and assess their skills. But just as important is the outreach given to parents, and encouraging them to be involved in their child's education, and that happens at the center, too.

For years, Petrossian made the same point to immigrant families in speeches she gave at schools. For parents from socially conservative countries, those talks sometimes involved reassuring parents worried about the newfound freedoms their children had -- the freedom to be more materialistic, wear shorts or go on dates.

"What I've learned from immigrants is if you help them, and you work with them and you share with them what they need to know, they want to do the best for their children," Petrossian said. "They've immigrated because of their children, and they want to do well. It's just that we need to provide them with the kind of support that will help them do well."